‘Hotline Miami’ takes players on an acid trip into a realm of depravity

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Hotline Miami
Dennaton Games
Devolver Digital
PS3, PS4, PS Vita, PC, Mac OSX, Linux

“Man is just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than his four-legged counterparts.”
-Anton Szandor Lavey

Even in the daring realm of indie titles, few games would have the gall to be as jarring and deliberately unpleasant as Hotline Miami. An ugly game, through and through, Hotline Miami is also insanely addictive and offers loads of hardcore fun. But the glaring question is why?

It’s a question that the developer seems intent on exploring: Why do you want to play a game like this? A game that is only centered on killing enemies quickly and efficiently, floor by floor, for no reason at all really. It can’t be the grainy 8 bit graphics, and it certainly isn’t for the humorously ugly character models, who spew profanities out of toothless or yellowed puke holes; so what is it? Why are you playing this game?

This appears to be the ultimate point of a title like this, and while video games have critiqued violence before, few have ever done it quite so clearly and succinctly. There is never a single time in the game when the violence or the characters who commit it are glamorized; in fact they are entirely faceless, with even their most basic features obscured by animal masks. Why animals? Well, it seems to this reviewer that the metaphor is pretty clear; after all who could be blamed for wondering about their animal instincts, and waxing philisophical about what small changes might have to occur to strip away the mask of civility that keeps us all so calm and complacent in a world so rife with violent atrocities.

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The themes become further clarified by the obscure plot, which is basically just your character reacting to a series of different phone calls, each with colorful metaphors for murder and mayhem. The phone rings, the order is given, the killing is done, and the player is patted on the back appropriately. After each mission, you pick up your pay from the same friendly dissident, sometimes at a pizza parlor, other times at a video store. The locations change, but never the pretense: your benefactor is always smiling and congratulating you on a job well done.

Occasionally though, a bit of reality slips through the veneer of happy carnage. A weeping prostitute screams in outrage or an unstable junkie ask questions like “Who do you think you are?” or “What the fuck are you looking at?”. These unpleasant exchanges happen only every so often, and your character is happy to ignore them even as they become more frequent.

After a time it becomes clear that the player character is not living in reality but in a hyper-violent fantasy world where he is a badass killer and emotionless psychopath. This is the fantasy, but who in their right mind would want to live a fantasy like that?

Obviously, the answer is you, and the answer is me. Even through the repetition, the grinding tedium, and the increasingly disturbing content we will push through to the end. Why? Well, why not? The blazing techno soundtrack and electronic rave beats are just further evidence that this is one big party, and who wants to leave a party?

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Insanely, at least from a design standpoint, leaving is exactly what the game suggests you do. If you don’t want to put your thumbs through the eyes of a weaponless beggar, than you only have two choices: do it anyway, or shut off the game. That everyone would rather brutally murder a man begging for his life than engage with the real world seems to be the whole point.

Like Funny Games in film or American Psycho in literature, Hotline Miami really just wants to know how far you will go down the rabbit hole before enough is enough. And when, like most of us, you discover enough is never enough, you will find that there are no answers at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

Instead, there are more questions than ever, and these are the kinds of questions that no one wants to answer.

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